Which flavor of AT&T 4G do I have? (Ask Maggie)

CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains the difference between AT&T's 4G services. She also offers advice about getting broadband in remote places.

AT&T is the latest carrier to announce a 4G wireless broadband service, but what does this mean for its customers who already thought they were getting 4G service?

When AT&T began marketing its HSPA+ network as 4G , I predicted it might confuse some customers when it finally launched its "true" 4G service, which uses the faster LTE technology. And it looks like I was correct. In this week's Ask Maggie I explain to a reader why his AT&T 4G smartphone won't work on the newly announced 4G LTE wireless network that launched over the weekend .

Also, I help another reader figure out her best options for staying connected while at her remote beach house.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. Starting today, look for Ask Maggie twice a week, on Tuesdays as well as Fridays. And if you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

AT&T and the 4G confusion

Dear Maggie,
I'm an AT&T customer and I live in Chicago. I have the Samsung Infuse 4G . I've been pretty disappointed with the service, because the speed doesn't feel much faster to me than my iPhone 3GS, which was also on AT&T. I have heard that AT&T's new 4G service has just launched here. Will this finally make my Samsung Infuse faster? If it doesn't, should I cancel my service for Verizon's LTE service? I've heard really good things about it.

Thanks,
Dave

Dear Dave,
First, you are correct about one thing. AT&T launched its 4G LTE service over the weekend in Chicago, as well as four other cities: Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston, and Atlanta.

But sadly, the service will not boost speeds on your current smartphone. I know, I know, the Samsung Infuse 4G is billed as a 4G phone. It says so right in the name of the device. But the Infuse 4G supports a technology called HSPA+, which AT&T markets as 4G. And now it's launched another 4G service that uses a new technology called LTE.

Unfortunately, the HSPA+ phones such as the Samsung Infuse 4G are not compatible with the LTE network, simply because two different technologies are involved. Think of it this way, your 2G phone wasn't compatible with AT&T's 3G network. And even your iPhone 3GS, which uses AT&T's regular 3G network, will not offer the supposed faster speeds of the HSPA+ network.

The same thing is true here. The older technology is not compatible with the newer technology.

(If you have additional questions about what AT&T's 4G LTE service means for you, check out an FAQ written by my CNET Reviews colleague Jessica Dolcourt .)

Now to answer the other part of your question: Should you drop AT&T and subscribe to Verizon's LTE service?

There are a couple of things to consider here. For one, the early termination fee on AT&T is $325. The amount decreases by $10 after each full month of service. Even if you are at least a couple of months into your contract, you're still looking at more than $300 just to cancel the service. So based on that fact alone, I'd say just keep your service with AT&T.

Right now AT&T doesn't offer any smartphones that work on the LTE network , so you can't even try to upgrade your phone. Currently, AT&T is offering the LTE service on only a couple of laptop cards, a tablet, and a mobile hotspot product. It will likely begin offering LTE-enabled handsets later this fall, in time for the holiday season.

Even when AT&T announced new 4G LTE phones, you probably wouldn't be eligible for an upgrade, and you'd have to pay full price for the next phone.

Aside from those issues, which carrier--AT&T or Verizon Wireless--do I think offers the better 4G LTE service?

I'd have to say Verizon Wireless. The main reason is that AT&T's service is limited to only five markets right now. AT&T is planning to extend coverage to more markets by the end of year, hitting 15 markets in total by the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, Verizon is way ahead of AT&T in terms of deployment. It recently said it would add another 26 markets to its list of cities with LTE. This will bring Verizon's total to 143 cities with LTE coverage. It also offers four different smartphones; a tablet; and several laptops, hotspots, and modems that support its LTE network.

Unless you don't plan on leaving Chicago, your 4G service will be hamstrung, because the fast speeds associated with LTE will be offered in only a limited footprint. For that reason alone, I think Verizon is a better choice for 4G LTE service.

But switching will be expensive. So you're kind of stuck with the Samsung Infuse 4G on AT&T until you are at least able to upgrade your phone.

Sun, fun, and broadband at the beach

Dear Maggie,
I am moving to a remote area on the beach where there's no TV and no telephone service. Since I'll be there for only six months of the year, I'm reluctant to pay for a phone and broadband connection to be brought into the place, if I have an economically viable alternative.

If I buy an iPad with 3G, that should give me access to high-speed Internet. And then I can use Skype to make long-distance phone calls. If I get a Netflix subscription, I can watch some TV without subscribing to cable.

Am I correct in this line of thinking?

Thanks,
Patti

Dear Patti,
I understand why you'd be looking for a cheaper alternative to getting phone and TV service at your beach house. It's expensive to get those services installed and to have to pay for them if you plan to use the house for only half the year. Using cellular broadband can be a good substitute in some instances. In fact, I use my cell phone and a Mi-Fi device from Verizon Wireless at my family's beach house in Delaware.

We could get phone and broadband service there. But we use the house for only four months out of the year. And my siblings and I felt it was too expensive to pay for broadband and phone service for the entire year. (Plus it's nice to be unplugged sometimes.) Instead, we use our cell phones to make calls. And this year, I used my Mi-Fi device for broadband. This allowed me to do a little bit of work from the house. And it also allowed my 12-year-old nephew to check baseball scores every day on his iPod Touch.

Depending on how remote your house is and what wireless services are available in your area, you may be able to do a similar thing. And I'd say if you can get a good, strong 3G wireless service, you could use it for some basic Web surfing and some video viewing. Of course, video can eat up a lot of bandwidth. And because wireless broadband plans are usage-based, you'd have get a plan that offers enough capacity every month for your needs. Such a plan may be expensive, depending on your usage. Still, you'd have to pay for the service for only six months of the year. So ultimately it could be a better option for you.

But if your beach house is in such a remote location that it doesn't have wired phone service or cable TV, then I'm going to assume that the cellular network is also not so great. And by not great, I mean that you may get a weak signal if you get one at all. If it's truly a very remote place, the service is likely to be very slow. Faster 3G networks are commonly available in cities throughout the U.S. and in many suburban areas around the country. But if you're truly in the sticks, you'll be lucky to get a 2G cellular signal.

This means that it will be very difficult to stream movies and TV shows from Netflix, and Skype probably won't work all that well either if the connection is weak or really slow. (By the way, if you're in the U.S. and can get a cell phone signal, you can just use your cell phone to make local and long-distance calls. You won't need Skype, since long distance is free on most cell phone plans Skype is a good option if you're outside the U.S. or inside the U.S. and want to call internationally.)

So what do I think you should do? If it's possible to get a phone line and broadband, then just do it. It might be expensive to hook it up and it will be annoying to have to pay for service for six months out of the year when you aren't there. But just remember that you're planning to be there for six months. And that's a long time to go without phone, TV, or broadband. Of course, some people love the solitude and would welcome a six-month leave-of-absence from technology.

But if you're trying to work remotely from this beach house, I don't really see any other way for you. And even then, I'd cross my fingers that you can get a phone hooked up or a broadband connection. My guess is that if your house is that remote, those services may not be available to you, especially broadband. If that's the case, you may need to consider satellite broadband , which is often more expensive than typical broadband and is much slower.

I hope this helps. And good luck! I wish I could live on a beach for six months out of the year!

 

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